thanks to a rock and roll name and hairdo, it's hard confusing Elvis Mitchell with his many contemporaries. Even without the name and look, he stands apart from a mediocre lot. Like the amount of good films, the amount of good film critics has dwindled greatly since Siskel & Ebert brought the profession to its pinnacle three decades ago. Thankfully, the amount of bad critics has dwindled too. As the newspaper biz hangs on life support and more people turn to online sites for suggestions, more bad critics are finally facing the ax. Not that a new generation of the online fanboys are any better. Harry Knowles, the biggest of online alternatives, put as big a stain on the industry as anything that even the most incompetent minds like, Ben Lyons, could ever attempt. Mitchell, although not perfect himself, has still been better than most and far better than many.
Of course Mitchell is still a good notch short of the late Gene Siskel or a younger Roger Ebert, back when he was in his prime. Then again, who could ever match the talents of the original hosts of At the Movies? Still, it seemed fitting that Mitchell, known for a rich writing style surpassed only by a commanding on screen presence, would join the latest reincarnation of the show which started it all. Last fall he was set to co-host the PBS program along Christy Lemire, but then he didn't. Apparently, "but then he didn't" has been a theme for Elvis.
Originally it was rumored that Mitchell walked out for more cash. Later it was reported by Roger Ebert that he was "let go for mundane reasons." Either way, it didn't take long for the former critic of the New York Times, LA Weekly and NPR to land back on his feet. Before the revamped At the Movies even reached the airwaves, Mitchell had already taken the roll as chief critic for Movieline.com. Now, just three months later, the critic who is almost as famous for breezing from gig-to-gig as he is for his dreadlocks, has added Movieline to his list of formers.
This time bouncing back on his feet won't be as easy. The man who at different times walked away from signed deals with first the LA Times, and then the Sony subsidiary, Columbia Pictures, without even showing up for a day's work is now, for the first time ever, having his legitimacy questioned. According to Deadline Hollywood's, Nikki Fenke, the latest Mitchell controversy began after his Movieline review of Source Code hit the web on March 31st. Source Code had already earned rave reviews but received only a 4 (out of 10) from Mitchell. The film's director, Duncan Jones, took exception to the review, but not for the low rating. Instead, Jones (David Bowie's son) took to Twitter and tweeted: "Find it odd Movieline chose to complain about Jeffrey Wright smoking a pipe, something in an old draft of the script that's not in the film."
Without any further explanation of the mixup, Mitchell was later fired. Suddenly it was feeding time at the zoo. Over the past week, hacks, fanboys, even respected critics like, Anne Thompson, have all united in burying Mitchell. Thompson, who was once Mitchell's editor at Premiere Magazine (yup, he worked there too) went the extra mile of filling her hatchet job with personal issues. We're not sure what dumping his fiancee for another woman, or several financial indiscretions has to do with Mitchell's talent as a critic but, it made for some terribly fun reading during the post-Sundance, pre-Cannes lull. The different takes and different stories from different insiders all seemed to hold the same message. Basically, they all came out to say that Mitchell isn't necessarily a bad guy, is indeed quite talented, but is also one helluva flakey, pampered, prima donna.
Scattered between the many detractors, a few defenders. David Edelstein wrote that he "thinks he saw Mitchell at Source Code." We "think" Edelstein would make for a lousy lawyer.
Elliot Erwitt came out with a stronger defense for his friend while writing about also having "visions" of the pipe smoking scene in question. He added: "I also have a vision of Mitchell at the same screening, but I see a lot of movies with a lot of the same people, which is why it's nice to have fact checkers who save my ass more often than I'd like to admit." Erwitt's piece in New York Magazine is stronger than Edelstein's but it only opens more questions. Mediocre movie critics get to have fact checkers (plural!) working for them? No wonder print is dead!
Actually, it's not quite dead yet and thankfully the Orlando Sentinel employs, Roger Moore, one of the better, if not least known critics. In stronger fashion than any of his colleagues, Moore pulled no punches in ripping Mitchell a new one. And none of his verbal venom had anything to do with spreading personal gossip. In fact, Moore has no personal gossip to spread. Aside from bumping into each other at film festivals (they might have bumped into each other at this past Florida Film Festival had Mitchell not stood them up to attend another in Poland) the two don't know each other. Instead, Moore took Mitchell to task for constantly looking for shortcuts despite the ridiculous amount of times (from newspapers to studios to Harvard University) he's been offered the moon. Moore took him to task for popping back and forth between the critic's chair and a studio chair. Moore took him to task for being a "physically and intellectually lazy chump." Moore took him to task for blowing fourth and fifth chances while other critics are still looking for their first big break.
The funny thing is that in terms of movie tastes the two are pretty similar. Aside from the fact that Moore isn't a Quentin Tarantino or Spike Lee fan, while Mitchell chums with them both, they're generally in the same camp when it comes to most films. They both sight the late Pauline Kael, the first ever critic to actively search for populist street cred, as influences. The big difference is that Moore never got a shot with the Gray Lady, a major studio, or Harvard.
Unfortunately, Moore leaves us asking how many more shots is Mitchell going to get? That rhetorical question seems incredibly naiive. Moore must know that ALL Hollywood names get fourth and fifth chances. This is true for pie-chart holding producers, visionless directors, neurotic actors, and yes, even prima donna, or worse, tasteless critics as well. The smaller hacks and fanboys might come and go, but the better known jokes like, Armond White, will always live on.
Andrew Sarris, longtime critic for the Village Voice has lived on to the point where he now spends his golden years lecturing at Columbia University and appearing on an array of docs as the elder statesman of film critics. This is a guy who gave higher praise to French Connection II than the original; higher praise to Godfather III than either of the previous epics; higher praise to Popeye than Raging Bull.
This is also a guy who (just to name a few!) left Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, The French Connection, The Conversation, Godfathers I and II, Mean Streets, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, Network, Marathon Man, Raging Bull, Sophie's Choice, Do the Right Thing, Goodfellas, Philadelphia and Pulp Fiction off of his annual Top-10 lists. When people like Sarris or Pauline Kael (whose taste was only marginally better) are placed on the Mount Rushmore of this ridiculous business (can anyone imagine a sports journalist rating Travis Outlaw over LeBron James, or keeping Kobe Bryant off an MVP ballot?) then it's easy to see why other names also manage to live on.
We don't know when and where Elvis Mitchell will comeback. We just know that eventually Elvis will reenter the building. Expect Anne Thompson and the other peers (well, the ones without the "007" name at least) to welcome him with open arms when he does.*